Guilty Pleasure: Peggy Sue Got Married

I went back and forth on this one. Is Peggy Sue Got Married a member of the Pantheon or a Guilty Pleasure? I mean, it stars all sorts of big names, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and has endured long enough in our collective pop culture memory to show up on TV from time to time. On the other hand, Nicolas Cage. I ultimately went with Guilty Pleasure, because when I was asked what so entranced me as to keep me up half the night, I was hesitant to admit it was this movie. Eh, whatever. I legitimately love it either way.

There really isn't that much to it. Kathleen Turner faints at her high school reunion, and wakes up back in the '60s. Half the movie is simply her reacting to encountering the younger versions of her friends and family, but she manages to nail every single one of those scenes, making me feel just as emotional as she does. The rest of it is her wrestling with the decision to remain with Nicolas Cage or not, since back in the present, they're in the midst of a divorce.

This movie belongs to a select group I call the Vortex, meaning that no matter what I'm doing, if I run across it, I'll sit slack-jawed and watch the whole thing. I don't even know that I'd call it particularly well-crafted, but there's no denying that it's magnetic. The score certainly helps; the background theme is heartbreaking. Aside from that, it's very difficult to describe what makes this movie so engaging to me, but damned if it doesn't warm my heart every single time.

The American President

What I'm Watching: The West Wing - Season 1

It's always a risk to start watching a much-beloved show years after it has wrapped. Fan hype begets overly high expectations. Overly high expectations beget disappointment. Disappointment begets push-back on my part, including my oft-used phrase, "Eh. It wasn't as good as everyone says it was," which has been popping up a lot lately. Add to that the fact that Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing deals with political issues, which are tied to reality, and thus show their age a lot faster than fictional plotlines. Still, I was excited to learn that this series has recently become available on Netflix Instant, because I've been wanting to give it a go. Weirdly, I've consumed a lot more discussion about Sorkin himself than his television shows. I've read all sorts of interesting debates on his treatment of women characters, his contentious relationship with internet communities, and judgements about his sense of humor, but have never sat down and watched Sports Night or The Newsroom. The only Sorkin show I've attempted to watch was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which was awful.

I'm four episodes into the first season now, and despite all the issues mentioned above, it's easy to see why this show was such a hit right out of the gate. Far from feeling stale, a presidential administration tackling gun control and fringe religious groups is exceedingly contemporary, for obvious reasons. Every day on the job is tense for these people, and the suspense about whether they'll get their way on any particular issue translates through to the audience. There's a long way to go with this series, and with so many controversies built in, from the creator to the characters, anything can happen. But so far, The West Wing clears the highest bar I've set for it: Living up to its reputation.

25th Anniversary

What is it the 25th anniversary of, you ask? Nothing! Well, that's not true; I'm sure plenty happened 25 years ago. But the only reason that this particular entry has that heading is because I randomly happened to wrap up two things today with "Silver" in their titles.

If I'm going to be in fighting weight for this year's Oscar contest, I have to get more of the Best Picture nominees under my belt, so when I found myself with a free evening last night, I seized the opportunity to wander up to the Hi-Pointe to catch a screening of Silver Linings Playbook. It's one of those films I'm still mulling over a day later, which is always a good thing. Bradley Cooper, who stars as Pat, a bipolar man fresh out of the asylum and attempting to rebuild his life and marriage. Along the way, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is skirting around some mental issues of her own, and the two forge a volatile friendship.

Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver appear as Pat's parents, and are often at sea as to how to deal with their son's violent outbursts and unreasonable demands on their attention. That doesn't mean Pat is the only one in the family with issues, though, as we see glimmers of some of his father's compulsions and mother's insistence that there isn't any problem that can't be solved with snacks.

I liked this film a lot, and it's easy to see why all four of its leads are up for Academy Awards this year. Bradley Cooper has never been better, and Jennifer Lawrence somehow manages to portray a person damaged in all sorts of stereotypical ways without coming across as stereotypical in the least. There are a few minor third act issues, and the ending is a bit too tidy, but of the four Best Picture nominees I've seen so far, this is easily my favorite.

Over in the world of books, I finished up Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow, which I'd never have come across, but for a recommendation from a friend. Like Silver Linings Playbook, it's much more a character study than a plot-driven story. The book is told as reminiscences from two women (Dana and Chaurisse) who met and became friends in their teen years. One of the girls knows that the two share a bigamist father, and she's hurt and curious about why she cannot be publicly acknowledged. She starts poking around in her father's "real" family by befriending her blissfully ignorant half-sister, and when the secrets inevitably are brought to light, the delicate house of cards built over the girls' lifetimes crumbles in an instant.

The entire book has only a half dozen important characters, so plenty of time is devoted to developing each of them. Everyone has a relatable point of view, and we wind up truly caring about what happens to all of them, even when they're completely at odds with one another. And perhaps most importantly, while Silver Linings Playbook overreaches to provide an easy path to happiness for its characters, Jones treats hers as actual humans. Even if every cloud does have a silver lining, that doesn't mean you'll always be able to find it.

Silver Sparrow: B+
Silver Linings Playbook: B+

Final Girls

"Hey Limecrete," I hear you say, a derisive, almost mocking tone entering your voice. "I've been reading through your Movies tag, and you barely mention horror movies at all!"

Yes, you would be correct, Amalgam of Judgmental Readership! As I mentioned in the entry about Halloween, I simply cannot handle gory movies. I like a good scare as much as the next guy, but I'm not a fan of being grossed out. I hate to leave a gap in your pop culture consumption, though, so for those of you who have a lot more intestinal fortitude than I do, check out the brand new blog on the block:

How did I stumble across this blood-soaked page, you ask? Maybe I did some intensive research. Maybe it was recommended to me by hordes of admirers. Maybe I'm related to one of the authors. I GUESS YOU'LL NEVER KNOW. In any event, I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops. Even if I have to read it while I peek cautiously through my fingers.


When people ask me what games I like to play, I always have to hesitate, because there are so many types of games, and I enjoy most of them. Board games, console games, card games, computer games, party games... Every one of those genres contains titles that I really get into. If you take a spin through the Games tag, I've mostly only mentioned the big, expansive console games I've been playing, so I thought I'd devote some space to the smaller games I've been playing lately. A few of them belong to a genre that deserves its own entry, so that'll come later. The other games I've been hitting hardest lately fall into two categories:

Cheapass Board Games

Cheapass is a remarkable game company. Instead of selling a full game kit with all the trappings, they assume you already own things like dice and Monopoly money and tokens, so all they have to send you is a stripped-down board and some rules. Naturally, this drives the price down, and if that weren't enough incentive, all of their games are extremely imaginative. Some friends of mine own a bunch of them, and thankfully figured there's no better way to while away the winter hours than by hosting game nights. Though we've experimented with no less than ten games, we've been focusing on four:

1) Fish Cook: This game is still in its beta version. I feel so special for getting to play it! I've only played once, but that was enough to realize that I'm going to like this one. A bunch of dice are rolled to represent different qualities of fish to go into one market, and number of ingredients to go into a separate farmers' market. From there, you and your competitors buy up the available goods to meet the requirements for the recipes you'll be cooking later that day. Strategy enters in when you aim for the most profitable recipes on one hand, while limiting others' access to the ingredients they need on the other. I'm looking forward to giving this one another go. (Grade: A-)

2) Deadwood: Sometimes, the story behind the game is as entertaining as the game itself. In Deadwood, you're a terrible actor looking for work on B-movies. You make your way from scene to scene, accepting any role that will make you a buck, from "Man Falling Off Roof" to "Aging Saloon Owner". The rules were a bit unbalanced, which the game designers have recently addressed. I haven't played with the updated rules yet, but here's hoping that my star turn as "Man On Fire" will earn me some bank soon. (Grade: B-)

3) Spree: Not all of the professions you take on in Cheapass games are noble. In Spree, the players' chief aim is to rob an unguarded mall. You gleefully dart through the atrium, picking up all the "items" on your list (represented by standard playing cards) and trying to get back to your car in the parking lot so you can score them. Only one thing stands in your way - the other players. They can rob you or even shoot you (not fatally, you just fall down for a while). It's a deceptively simple idea that packs in a lot of mischievous fun. (Grade: B)

4) Kill Dr. Lucky: Speaking of mischief. This one is apparently so popular that it has been adapted into a "real" game. Sort of like Clue in reverse, the object of Kill Dr. Lucky is to... Well, kill Dr. Lucky. But he's called "Lucky" for a reason. You have to find yourself alone in a room with him, out of sight of all the other would-be murderers. And no matter how deft your attack, other players can play cards that cause you to fail in all sorts of ways, from a guilty conscience to a sneeze. This game is a breeze to learn, and highly enjoyable. (Grade: B+)

iPod Apps

Naturally, you can't always throw together a group of people every time you feel like gaming. Sometimes, you're on your own, and are trying to kill five minutes between meetings or whatever. This is where my iPod comes in. There are hundreds of gaming apps out there, many of which are free. There's often a trade-off for that, though, whether it's limited content or irritating requests for personal information and/or making you rope your friends in. I've been cycling through a few of these freebies, lately. Some more successfully than others.

1) Auditorium: A fantastic little freebie that has turned out to be very challenging. All you do is direct streams of light into sound bars. As the sound bars fill, the music swells, and when all of them are playing in perfect harmony, you move on to the next level. That's all there is to it, and yet trying to get the light streams to flow the way you want can be pretty difficult. (Grade: A)

2) The Simpsons: Tapped Out: A world-building game wherein you set your favorite Simpsons characters to various tasks. Once those tasks are complete, you can expand your Springfield and your roster of characters. Tasks can take anywhere from 45 seconds to 24 hours, so it's fairly easy to jump in, assign a bunch of tasks, and jump out. Of course, that facility also limits how interesting the game is; there are some clever little dialogue bits, but so far, the actual gameplay is pretty rote. (Grade: C)

3) Middle Manager of Justice: I first became aware of this game on The Gameological Society, which gave it a negative review. As I read it, everything they mentioned as a detriment seemed like a selling point to me. Building up funny little superheros via corporate management sounded like fun, so I downloaded it. As I suspected, it was pretty entertaining to send my heroes to improve their skills via office lectures and facing petty criminals on the streets. Unfortunately, though the game delivered on that front, it was so buggy as to be unplayable. It got to the point that it would crash every time I sent someone out to fight. After a while, I got fed up and deleted it. (Grade: D+)

4) You Don't Know Jack: I really enjoyed this back when it was a computer game, and when I saw a friend playing the app version on his iPad, I knew I had to give it a whirl. Although there are only five questions daily, a lot of the elements are still the same: Fake ad sponsorship, Dis or Dat, Gibberish Question, and of course, the last question is always the Jack Attack. This game links to your Facebook account, so you can see how you stack up against the friends that also play it. And although the game gives you the option of inviting additional friends, bragging about your score, and other things, it happily doesn't force you to do any of them. (Grade: A)

See Spot(ify) Play

I generally use the new year to take stock of what I own and what I use, then try to make any necessary adjustments; I've already begun amassing a pile of stuff to donate or throw away. This doesn't just apply to possessions, but to my online life as well. I deactivated Twitter after a few weeks of not being able to work up even the minimal effort to check in. As a trade-off to that, though, I picked up another service that everyone else has already long become familiar with. What can I say? I've always been a late adopter.

That service is Spotify, where you can select specific music tracks to stream, rather than relying on an algorithm to pick music for you, like with Pandora or AccuRadio. You can also create playlists and poke into what your friends are listening to, which is what I've been using it for so far. As I've said many times before, I'm entirely at ease describing, discussing, and debating my tastes in film, television, books, and games, but for some reason, I'm all thumbs when it comes to music. My music tastes trend towards the unsophisticated, and I'm usually ignorant of many indie groups I'd love if only I knew about them.

This is where the built-in friends list of Spotify comes in handy. Some of my friends are very tuned in to the world of music (no pun intended), and by piggy-backing on the music they listen to, I've been discovering some great groups and songs I never would have heard otherwise. Each track has the option of marking it with a gold star, and from the wealth of music I've been able to dive into so far this year, four songs have gotten that hallowed branding. It's entirely possible that everyone in the universe besides me has already heard them (though three of the four were just released in 2012), but on the off-chance I can actually spread the wealth to anyone new, I thought I'd mention them.

It's very difficult for me to describe why I like any certain song beyond just saying "Ooh, I like that," but I'll give it a try. Maybe I'll have to get some guest comments about why a certain song is so engaging from my friend Kyle, whose playlist all four of these were plucked from.

"Casualties of War" (Gossip): The music is what first hooked me. And I also like the purity of Beth Ditto's voice. The lyrics, though, which are about exes encountering each other after a breakup and doing a pensive dissection of what went wrong, are what hit me last, and what hit me hardest.

"Sister Wife" (Alex Winston): This one's the other way around. The witty lyrics about the jealousy and territoriality of the narrator towards another woman who shares the same husband tickled me, and the catchiness of the music came later.

"The Void" (Metric): I wanted to choose one of the four videos to embed into the post itself, and after seeing these moves, how I could resist picking this one?

As to why it earned a coveted star, one listen should be all the explanation you need.

"Phone Sex" (Blood Diamonds - feat. Grimes): I couldn't even begin to tell you what this one's about. I just really like the ethereal music paired with a good beat.

Let's Do The Time Warp Again

In my State of the Art post about the movies of 2012, my friend Kevin commented and asked if I had any plans to see Safety Not Guaranteed, but you'll note that he didn't mention whether he liked it or not. Curious. After he mentioned it, I put it on that nebulous list of movies that I'd watch if I ever got around to them, but wouldn't make any special effort to consume.

Mumblecore is not particularly high on my genres of choice. I tend to find the movies that fall under that label smug and annoying, and as one of the representative faces of it, I'm not a giant fan of Mark Duplass, either. Still, the chatter I heard on the internet about this movie intrigued me, and after Kevin's comment, I decided that if this movie ever fell into my lap, I'd give it a go. Well... I was at another friend's apartment to hang out for the evening, and when we couldn't get Premium Rush to download fast enough, guess what was waiting in his queue of rentals?

So, Safety Not Guaranteed is about April Ludgate... Sorry, I mean Aubrey Plaza, who is struggling along in a deeply unfulfilling intern position at a magazine. Her douchey boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson), stumbles across a classified ad asking for a partner in time travel, and thinks it would be a goof to check it out, so he heads to the Pacific Northwest town it was placed in, dragging Darius (Plaza) and Arnau, a shy, nerdy, Indian intern (Karan Soni) along to do all the work.

The movie then splits into two paths, one with Darius' developing relationship with the time-traveling conspiracy theorist Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and the other about Jeff tracking down a high school fling and discovering the life he gave up to be a supposed big wheel. Oh, and Arnau gets laid along the way.

I'm surprised at how much I liked this movie. It never disappears up its own ass, like so many other movies of the genre, and doesn't devolve into technological gobblygook to excuse its premise (that would be Primer's ears burning right about now). Kenneth is first viewed as a nut, of course, but the feasibility of time travel is basically ignored until the very end. It actually doesn't matter if Kenneth can deliver on his promises, the movie suggests, because Darius' outlook on life is changed simply through the act of getting to know him.

It helps that the film is extremely well-acted. The tics that Plaza and Duplass sometimes over-employ are tamped down, and their relationship feels very natural. Jake Johnson is outstanding as that guy you kind of want to hang out with, even as he's being a colossal asshole. Kristen Bell and Mary Lynn Rajskub have small roles, but are reliably good. Usually, if I wind up watching a film I was going to let pass me by, my worst fears about it are confirmed. But in the case of Safety Not Guaranteed, I would have missed out on what turned out to be a pretty charming little movie.

Safety Not Guaranteed: B

Oscar Nominations 2013

I feel like I did my level best to get out there and see a bunch of movies in 2012, but in looking at this year's Academy Award nominations, it's painfully clear just how much I missed, and how much I'll have to get to late (if at all). Still, I have a reputation to maintain as far as ruling the annual Oscar pool, so I'll have to at least take a shot at analyzing the year's contenders.


Beasts of the Southern Wild
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Django Unchained

Of the nine nominees, I've seen three. That's pathetic. What's even more pathetic is that of the six that I've missed, I really am only interested in seeing half of them. I'm hopeful I can get to Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, and Beasts of the Southern Wild before the awards, but will absolutely see them all at some point. On the flip side, I have no desire to see Amour, Django Unchained, or Zero Dark Thirty at all, no matter how much of a critical or audience smash any of them is.

Given all that, me judging what can and should win would be something of a crap shoot. Argo won the Golden Globe. I don't think Les Miserables was anywhere near good enough to win on merit, but doubt it has any chance against the Lincoln juggernaut, anyway. That movie was genetically spawned in a lab devoted to research about How To Win Oscars.


Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Denzel Washington (Flight)
Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

This is more like it. I have seen or probably will see all five of these movies at some point. As far as handicapping the winner, it seems fairly certain that Daniel Day-Lewis will win, but there's usually at least one upset per ceremony, so who knows what category it will occur in?


Naomi Watts (The Impossible)
Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Erm. I haven't seen a single one of these movies yet. Jennifer Lawrence won the Golden Globe, but so did Jessica Chastain, and dramas tend to perform better at the Oscars than anything with comedic content. Beyond that, I don't see what I can contribute.


Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)
Alan Arkin (Argo)
Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)

As I have yet to get to The Master or Silver Linings Playbook (and will likely never see Django Unchained), it's tough to predict this one. Alan Arkin was great in Argo, but it was a small role, and frankly, I thought John Goodman was more engaging than him. Christoph Waltz won the Golden Globe, but he's also already won an Oscar for a Quentin Tarantino movie, and I sort of doubt it'll happen again so soon. I could easily be wrong, but I'm going to guess that the more staid and aged members of the Academy will swing this one for Tommy Lee Jones.


Sally Field (Lincoln)
Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)
Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
Amy Adams, (The Master)

I have to admit that I don't understand the general acclaim that Sally Field enjoys. I don't dislike her, and I don't think she's a bad actress, but I can't remember the last time she displayed any range, and Lincoln was no exception. She was basically Forrest Gump's mom with a hoop skirt. I have yet to see the latter three movies, so I can't really comment on who is going to win, but I can say that although I'm finding Les Miserables extremely over-recognized this year, Anne Hathaway was remarkably good in it. Her performance adds up to a scant fifteen minutes or so, but she manages to be the emotional center of the whole damned thing.


David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln
Michael Haneke (Amour)
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

A list most notable for its snubs (Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino), it seems unlikely that anyone can beat Steven Spielberg.


Zero Dark Thirty
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson has been ignored in every other category, so this may be the one chance for the very-deserving Moonrise Kingdom to score a win.


Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
Beasts of the Southern Wild

On the one hand, the screenplay category is one of the few that Lincoln could be vulnerable. On the other hand, Tony Kushner is getting all sorts of raves for his work on that movie. So in short, this is going to be one of the harder ones to call.


The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Well, let's see. If the votes go for which film was actually the best of the year, then Wreck-It Ralph would win (with a possible outside spoiler of ParaNorman). If voters look at this list and think "Oh, there's a Pixar movie on it. Guess I should vote for that," then Brave will win. Guess which scenario is more likely?


A Royal Affair
War Witch

Amour. Surest best of the night. Next question, please.


Anna Karenina
Django Unchained
Life of Pi

Arrrgh! I have issues even picking out the front-runner here. All five have been thoroughly lauded in this category. Django Unchained seems the unlikeliest winner, but I wouldn't feel safe making any sort of prediction for this category.


Anna Karenina
Les Miserables
Mirror Mirror
Show White and the Huntsman

I was speaking with an honest-to-goodness costume designer who was bemoaning the fact that period pieces always win this prize, because it's actually much more of a challenge to design for contemporary characters than ones from a bygone era where all the rules about how to dress are essentially set in amber forever. That has nothing to do about who's actually going to win, but I thought she had a good point. As far as who will win, it'll probably be Les Miserables, though I don't think there was anything too special about those costumes.


Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

I'm told that if there is any justice in the world, Anna Karenina should have this sewn up. Having not seen it yet, I can't say if that's true or not. Still, it seems like if it wins in any category, it'll be this one.


Searching for Sugar Man
How to Survive a Plague
The Gatekeepers
5 Broken Cameras
The Invisible War

I've heard some glowing reviews of Searching for Sugar Man, but How to Survive a Plague and The Invisible War are about far more grim, depressing topics, and those always seem to snatch this award. I'm not a fan of that precedent, but I can't ignore it.


Open Heart
Kings Point
Mondays at Racine

I'll defer to whatever Entertainment Weekly predicts about this one.


Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

I've never been good at guessing who will win this category, but usually, whatever film seems like the overall Big Movie of the Year is a safe guess, so let's say Lincoln. Zero Dark Thirty has the potential to sneak in on this one, though.


Life of Pi
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Avengers
Snow White and the Huntsman

Hmm. This one is a toughie. I think we can safely discount Snow White and the Huntsman, but could envision any of the other four winning. If forced to make a guess right now, I'd say it'll probably come down to a close battle between Life of Pi and Prometheus.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables

Hobbits or making poor French people look horrible? It could go either way!


Anna Karenina
Life of Pi

I haven't heard Life of Pi or Anna Karenina, so it would be difficult to judge this one. The Skyfall score was great, though.


"Before My Time" (Chasing Ice)
"Everybody Needs a Best Friend" (Ted)
"Pi's Lullaby" (Life of Pi)
"Skyfall" (Skyfall)
"Suddenly" (Les Miserables)

This was always going to come down to Adele vs. the original song from Les Miserables, and "Suddenly" never managed to make much of a splash, so I'm thinking "Skyfall", all the way.


Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare'

The only one I've seen is Paperman, which was charming, though I don't know if it was charming enough to win. I'll leave the guessing on this one to more informed prognosticators.


Buzkashi Boys
Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)

I haven't seen any of them yet. I read a lot of Oscar discussion, though, so I should soon be able to at least see where other people think the votes are going.


Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty


Les Miserables
Life of Pi

I don't know who's going to win either of these categories, and neither do you. Let's chat about it on the twelfth of never, shall we?

(C)ome One, Come All

Beyond hearing a recommendation on a podcast for Circus, a documentary mini-series that aired on PBS in 2010, I went into this newest experiment as blindly as I did the other ABC properties. I don't know where this fascination of mine regarding circuses has suddenly come from, but I suppose I can think of worse topics to be exploring.

The mini-series documents the 2008-2009 season of the Big Apple Circus and the people who work for it, from performers to directors to teachers to crew. The circus has always been a symbol for escape, and not just for audiences who wish to be amazed for a couple of hours. The nomadic and transitory nature of the circus can be magnetic to people who want to leave their lives behind and start anew. Or circus has been in the family blood for multiple generations. Or it's just a way to scratch the itch of wanting to perform. All of these urges and more are explored in the six episodes of this show, which spends as much time behind the curtain as it does in the ring.

If you weren't aware that the personnel of this company are real, you'd have to make them up. I can think of no better description of the season's guest director than "A real life version of Corky St. Clair". Others aren't so whimsical, but just as fascinating. There are a pair of juggling identical twins who work flawlessly together in the ring, but don't have much in common besides their act, and are being pulled apart by disparate ambitions. The jolly clowns contend with depression and cancer scares. Married crew-workers leave the circus when the husband is kicked out for discussing the technical aspects of how he'd bomb the place, and I figured we'd never see either of them again. But the circus has a tight hold on people, and the wife soon returns after her separation, starts dating another crew-worker, gets pregnant, and the new couple begins dreaming of putting together an act of their own to perform. (Tell me again why America is so excited to watch a gang of vapid whores pretend to fight at a fake cocktail party, when real life is so much more interesting?)

Besides all the human drama, there's plenty of material to be mined from the acts themselves. This is dangerous work, and you never know when a horse is going to go out from under somebody, or an acrobat will fall from the sky. Children must decide whether to follow in their parents' footsteps, or want to go live a more normal life. The troupe is described as a family more than once, but of course the circus is a business, and acts that don't work get cut, regardless of anyone's fondness for one another. After spending six hours with this tight-knit group of people, I feel like I really got a sense of what their existence entails, both the positive and the negative aspects. When the company parts ways at the end of the series, I found it a genuinely bittersweet moment, not only for the wanderers of the circus life who don't know where they'll land next, but for me as well.

Circus: A-

Child Care

After finally getting the chance to watch a a bunch of The French Chef episodes (and having read and seen Julie & Julia back when the book and movie came out), Julia Child's autobiography seemed the next natural step on the list.

My Life in France was compiled by Julia Child and her husband's grandnephew Alex Prud'homme. The stories contained within comprise a patchwork of anecdotes, letters, and research, rather than being a single beginning-to-end narrative. It was published in 2004, two years after Child's death, so I'm not sure how much of the writing was filled in by Prud'homme and how much is from the source herself. It's a good sign that I can't make out the seams; the entire book flows very well, and Child's tone shines throughout.

In many autobiographies, the author avoiding putting their stories into a wider context would drive me crazy. But when Child gently passes over the indignities of how the McCarthy witch hunts affected her and her family so that she can get to describing a fantastic meal she had in a Parisian cafe, it's endearing. Not that she pulls punches; personality clashes with publishers and her cookbook co-authors are frankly discussed, but never with any venom.

It's easy to see why Child was such a national treasure. Not only did she pioneer a cooking movement, but her personality was magnetic, and it shows in this work. So, now that I've seen the movie and read the autobiography, I guess the next step is to acquire Mastering the Art of French Cooking and test out some recipes. My birthday is in eight months. Just sayin'.

My Life in France: A-

I'm Making a Note Here...Huge Success

What I'm Playing: Portal 2

"Wait a minute, didn't he already play that?" I did, and it's one of the very few things to get an A+ since I started this blog a year ago. I had borrowed the XBox version, and played through the single-player campaign, loving it from beginning to end. But then, sadly, I had to give the game back to its owner.

These days, my computer is actually capable of handling a game or two, and I snagged the sale version of Portal 2 to play on the PC. I dove right back into the story again, because I'd thoroughly forgotten the solutions to the puzzles, so it's much like playing it for the first time. But now, there's an added layer!

I don't bother much with multiplayer on the XBox. Most of the games I would do that for would necessitate interacting on a set schedule with strangers, many of whom I don't feel like hanging out with. In this case, fortuitously, one of my good friends also bought Portal 2 through Steam, and suggested playing the cooperative campaign. Suddenly, I've got access to a whole new game.

In this version, there's no getting through the test chambers unless you work together. Maybe you have to launch your robotic partner through a series of portals you've both set up. Or maybe you have to figure out a way to pass a weighted cube from room to room. In one memorable test, there's no way to advance unless you crash into each other in mid-air. GLaDOS is still present, of course, mocking both of you as you attempt to solve her devious puzzles. Given the number of times I've already burst out into giggle fits, it's obvious the writers didn't ignore this section of the game, and though there are many test chambers to go, it's clear that Portal 2 isn't losing any of its lustre. Now, let's do some science!

Say Hello To My Little Friend

Given how young the new year is (and how busy I've been at work), I'm pretty impressed with the amount of pop culture I've already been able to get into. January and February are usually the time of year that I hurriedly catch up on stuff I missed that may become noteworthy come awards season. My friend just acquired a bunch of the Hayao Miyazaki movies, and since I'd never gotten around to seeing The Secret World of Arietty last year, he kindly offered to bring it over and watch it with me while we buzzed along on post-new-year mimosas.

The English dub was released in America in 2012, but it debuted in Japan in 2010. Based on the English novel The Borrowers, it's about a sickly boy who is staying with his elderly aunt in order to get some rest and relaxation before heart surgery. While there, he discovers a family of "borrowers" (tiny people who steal little things they think won't be missed), and strikes up a friendship with the daughter, Arietty. Things get complicated when the cuckoo-pants housekeeper also discovers the miniscule family, and attempts to trap them.

The US cast is an odd mix. All is well and good with the adults, who are voiced by Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and Carol Burnett. For the kids, parent company Disney shoehorned in a bunch of Disney Channel tweens. I worried that American teens wouldn't really capture the tone of a Japanese film well, but unlike the woefully-miscast Cyrus girl of Ponyo, the kids here are pretty adept.

This is a very quiet film, nowhere near the grand, sweeping scale of other Miyazaki movies like Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away. But that's a good thing. The friendship between Shawn and Arietty is a very fragile one, and the gentle tone and pensive music help create an overall experience of a transient experience in the day of two vastly different people that winds up having a life-long impact on both of them.

The Secret World of Arietty: B
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